While getting ready for a trip to Arctic, I imagined wild frosty places with snowy roads, couple of residential buildings in kilometers from each other and pure infrastructure – with no shops, no cafes but one municipal building. Hanging out all day in Longyear, the capital of Spitsbergen and my destination city, seemed pointless. I also admitted that at a temperature −10◦C and a wind speed up to 40 meters per second, exploring the island on my own could be more than challenging. So I checked Longyear travel agency webpage.
I had 3 full days at my disposal, one of them I was going to devote to the ghost town of Pyramid – a place that inspired me to visit Arctic. On the second day I planned to explore Longyear and get acquainted with the locals. And the 3rd day… Ice cave!! Oh yeah! White-blue smooth walls, created by mother-nature, what could be more beautiful?
Ice Cave tour is offered in several options: you may get there by dog sled, by feet or by scooter. It would be joyful to ride dogs sled with locals, but +$160 to the price of the tour is considerable. However, an idea to ride on a scooter through a monotonous snow-white landscape did not appeal me neither (how wrong I was!) I haven’t considered by foot option, because it was my first trip to the cold lands, and I did not want to turn into ice on halfway between Longyear and a cave…
2 weeks prior to departure Ice Cave tour company replaced scooter option by snowmobile. In Longyear, I saw only snowmobiles – how Arctic scooter should look like is still a mystery…
It was also a mystery how joyful would be an Ice Cave tour. I imagined a group of researchers including me excitedly passing by white and blue smooth walls. But also prepared for a tour like “do not go there, do not go here, it’s dangerous, stay away”.
In a blue micro bus with shabby seats, a red-bearded driver looked more like a loader than a guide or a climber who conquered the North Pole. I found out this later, meanwhile he was driving me and two men that made our group, into a hangar where we got dressed in thickest snowsuits, grizzly-size gloves and helmets with a 20 degrees vision angle, 10 degrees per eye. I felt as I was packed into a space suit, through which I was supposed to be able not only to grope the snowmobile pedal, but also to drive… After all this, 2 rubber buckets were clad – they were called boots.
My suit was incredibly suitable for a winter trip. While sitting on the snow in a cave, I did not feel cold or wetness at all. It’s time to say that the right clothes in the Arctic are holy. I saw a family that disembarked from the plane in jackets and sneakers, without luggage. No one saw them never again…
After signing a document on personal responsibility, driver’s license check that was “forgotten in a hotel” and a short (fuh!) introduction, I turned on start key and squeezed gas pedal. Bwobb-bwoob-bwob… The reason of such trust is not the instructor’s frivolity, but the fact that lookie-loos tourists do not reach the Arctic. Everyone who comes here comes for a reason. That’s why everyone including the airport staff and the waiters at the cafe treat you like an insider, silently or in words understanding why you are here. There is a reason. And this reason is freedom.
In the Arctic there are no borders, there are no authorities, there is no customs control, and I have not seen the police. Here people care about themselves, about others and about environment. While typing these words in the city, I understand that it’s hard to imagine. Therefore, it is worth to go – you can feel that only on the island. Whatever imagination draws – it will not replace real experience. That’s why people go to such places like Spitsbergen.
And I went to my ice cave… Bwobb-bwoob-bwob… Through a monotonous whiter-than-white landscape. White snow, white mountains, white road, white sky. Black was just a snowmobile, and me, and a group. There was no horizon but a white veil instead. Like a two-dimensional world where the sense of relief is lost and it’s not clear where the mountain is, and where the sky, where the slope, and where the plain. A guide is a one who knows the terrain like his own 5 fingers and I followed him.
In our though small group, there is a lagger. Of course! 73 years old man, excuse him. A mathematics teacher at a Norwegian university, talkative and energetic, he follows the guide, slowing down on the heights, snowy potholes. I follow him, quickly getting used to snowmobile and filming the ride when a teacher slows down. It’s not an easy task, I’ll tell you – it’s more difficult to operate a snowmobile than an ATV, since snow resistance is higher, and the steering wheel with a pair of skis is heavier than the usual wheel. To turn it and to keep the balance on sharp turns, the driver needs to move to the lateral side of the seat.
Stockholm’s prison chief is a last and locking our group, a 50 years old man, silent and huge as a wall. He sternly but kindly, answers questions, looks after me and old man.
We park snowmobiles on an imaginary parking, mountains surrounds us and a indistinct breakage is right in the front. Under the skies with no sun but drizzling snow we approach one of the hills. Somewhere in the snow our guide finds a door and opens it upwards, putting a wooden stick under. On all fours we get inside the “waiting room” of the cave that was dug out in the snow as a yurt with round arches. In summer snow melts and the bottom of the ice cave turns into a river, so every year local guides rebuild a “waiting room”.
Here in the yurt a guide gives us crampons for shoes, flashlights and we move inward. Thanks to the ropes hammered into the ice on the slopes and ice stairs, it’s not difficult to walk. Unlike human made tunnels, the ice tunnel curves at its own discretion. We overcome some tunnels at the 45 degrees angle. Although the pass is straight, the walls bend and we have to adjust to them. But ice cave is more pleasant than stone, its surface is smooth, I slip on its walls like on the glass.
Frozen figures of water, perennial layers of ice on the walls, ice crystals decorating the ceilings – there is something on each track section… After 40 minutes of walking we bump into the wall – following path is opened only for climbers with special equipment. We have a halt recollecting stories about Arctic discoverers. As if they are still here. Fridtjof Nansen, who explored the Arctic on his “Fram” vessel, Roald Amundsen, a traveler who visited both poles of the earth, Umberto Nobile, who first conquered the North Pole on an airship. These names, wiped in the 21st century, continue to live on the lips of the present inhabitants of the Arctic.
Arctic people still organize expeditions to find discoverers who sooner or later ended their lives in boundless snows without reliable means of communication and transport. Even Roald Amundsen went to save his friend who had an accident but disappeared in the waters of the North Sea.
“On the Continent” people discuss the latest news, personal life of the stars, while on the Arctic people admire the courage of the polar explorers and share the stories about polar bears. Each Svalbardist has a breath taking story about how he met the northern bear. And another one who, where, when met the polar bear last time. The stories are all different: Ice Cave guide’s story, captain’s who will take me to the Pyramid tomorrow story, hunter’s who settles alone (!) in a chalet on the fjord’s shore story.
2 weeks ago, one bear came to Longyear, laid down on the ice floe and did not want to leave. He had to be put to sleep and transported by helicopter to the other side of the island, so he would not tell his friends-bears about a wonderful warm place Longyear with a lot of food…
And we start our way back. In one of the corridors our guide suggests to turn off the light to stand in complete darkness for a couple of minutes and hear the icy silence of the cave. On a polar day, this is perhaps the only dark place on Spitsbergen. Halfway the guide says: “You know the way out. If you want, feel free to stay in the cave. I’ll be waiting for you in the yurt.”
What??! I could scarcely trust my ears. To stay in the cave by my own? Of course, I want. I stay in the cave and lay down on the wall, leaning my ear to it. I listen to the slow language of the icy land. Then I turn off the light… On the advice of the guide, I try to walk along the corridors of the cave in the dark. I run into obstacles, turn on the light, turn it off again. I go further. There is no snakes nor bats nor insects here, that gives me confidence. The Arctic fauna is extremely poor, so does the flora – there are no trees at all, no single tree. Ice, land, I, a little snow, and three people in a hundred meters – that’s all. Imagine only, I am in the bowels of the earth, covered with ice, a mountain stands above, wrapped in snow. And this is far from the mainland, civilization. There is no mobile communication, social networks, public transport, crowds of people, there is no market and shopping centers, there is no hurry, because there is nowhere to hurry. Only if the bear is around the corner or a snow avalanche is coming.
I meet a head of the prison on the way – he went to look for me, if I was not lost. He does not say anything, but silently accompanies me to the yurt. Guide waves with the hand and welcomes with a glass of traditional for locals drink – black currant syrup, thick as black blood, diluted with boiling water. This drink replenishes calories. And it’s so taaasty! While drinking and sitting on the snow floor, we tell who we are and where are from. Like an evening gatherings by the fire. But instead of tongues of flame – a thermos with hot water, coffee, syrup.
My cell phone died long time ago – in the coldness and wind it lives for 20 minutes. I have to warm it up with hand in the pocket so that the screen lights up again. 22:30 on the screen. It’s light outside, it’s cozy in the yurt, I do not want to leave… But I want to come back and spend the night in a cave. A guide said that IT IS POSSIBLE. Now I have a new dream and … A reason to return 😉